Color in photojournalism in the 1960’s and ’70s.

Interview by Michel Poivert for Les Cahiers de la Fondation Caron n°1 (spring 2015 issue), Fondation Bru and Filigrane editor. En français ici.

Cahiers-Fondation-Caron_Couleur n°1.
Cahiers-Fondation-Caron_Couleur-01.

Michel Poivert : The history of the press seems a good place to observe our culture of color photography. In the 1960s, how did the French press choose to print either in black and white or in color? Was there a standard way of operating, or did different newspapers and magazines follow different approaches?

Audrey Leblanc : In the mid-1960s, while daily newspapers were entirely in black and white, weeklies commonly published their covers and only about 20 percent of their illustrations in color using the four-color process. At that time, L’Express, Le Nouvel Observateur and Paris Match dominated the news magazine sector.

Each of these magazines had its own editorial practices, including the use of black and white or color. L’Express issues were composed of nearly 200 pages on average, with about 30 pages of color advertising. The inside pages were mostly black and white, occasionally brightened up with monochrome printing. Le Nouvel Observateur, with an average of 50 pages, used color on its cover in the form of monochrome highlights, while the inside pages featured mainly black and white, with rare color advertisements.

Paris Match, on the other hand, always had a color cover. The magazine followed a precise layout, which was occasionally disrupted to fit the news, and the ratio of color news photos to pages remained steady, depending on the number of adverts, an indicator of the cost required for the magazine to use this technique. In large format with between 70 and 180 pages, a third of which were dedicated to color adverts, Paris Match was very colorful with nearly one in every two pages in color.

In fact, after its acquisition in 1938 by Jean Prouvost, the sporting magazine Match reappeared in 1949 as a news magazine and immediately stood out with its editorial decision to use color. At least one of the photo stories announced on the cover was illustrated in color on the inside pages. This rendering indicated a special place in the hierarchy of information and distinguished the magazine from other media coverage of the same events. The editors did not hesitate to highlight this specific feature of their front pages as a sales argument. Paris Match quickly rose to success with a circulation three times higher than its competitors. The Prouvost media group had its own color laboratory starting in the early 1960s, fostering the development of a full-fledged color practice.

MP : Were color images reserved for specific subjects? It seems as if we had regularly seen the news in black and white, but was that really the case?

AL : Although color was firmly established in photographic practices, it often provoked virulent reactions, especially in photojournalism, where the documentary value of images was for long associated with black-and-white processing. Throughout the history of 20th century photojournalism, one constant was the high value placed on black and white by the profession, which used it for noble news topics. In contrast, less esteemed color was reserved for more frivolous, society subjects, which photojournalism did little to assert in its own history.

However, this distinction in the memory of the profession is contradicted by photographic publications and collections. At the end of the 1960s, photographers often worked simultaneously in black and white and color, doubling up their shots1. As for the publications, Paris Match, a leading figure in the use of color at the time, published color reportages on all kinds of subjects, often mixing the two approaches in the same story. Color photographs of the Vietnam War sat alongside black and white coverage of Catherine Deneuve with her son.

Cahiers-Fondation-Caron_Couleur n°1_ 4ème de couverture
Cahiers-Fondation-Caron_Couleur n°1_ 4ème de couverture.

Indeed, because archives belong to agencies, they are confidential and difficult-to-access. Photojournalistic discourses regularly absorb elements that are previously known to only a very limited audience; for example, annotated press publications, edited contact sheets2 and color pictures. Several recent exhibitions have also challenged these affirmations about color photographs in photojournalism, showing little-known color archives of certain events or photographers3.

MP : Agencies often required photojournalists to use both black and white and color. Could you give a rough idea of the percentage of color published?

AL : Color press photography used positives or slides at first, mainly for printing reasons, but the handling processes were always particularly inconvenient and problematic for the agencies. (They were replaced in the early 1990s by negatives, stored in a similar way to black and white.) Compared to black and white, color photographic archives were more difficult to handle and more fragile, and as a result, they have been less well conserved, making it difficult to evaluate the role of color in photojournalism.

Shots from the same roll of film were separated before being placed into mounts and credited individually, at least with the rubber stamp of the agency. Other information (the name of the photographer or agency, reportage number, shooting date, event, etc.) was lost unless marked on each mount. With isolated images, it is difficult – impossible, even – to reconstruct a shooting chronologically. Since photographers worked with several cameras, a succession of images was never an exact chronological record of the photographed event, but the difference was accentuated by the dispersion of conserved slides. Those individual images got lost, mixed up and damaged much more easily than contact sheets or rolls of film – a situation that was not helped by slides being mounted as soon as they came out of the laboratory for use by clients immediately after editing: Paris Match editors preferred the original to a mediocre duplicate and saved time in the process. This practice eventually led to the scattering or even loss of color images.

Given their instability and increased vulnerability to the frequent handling involved in regular use, color archives were less practical for photographic agencies to manage and exploit. This explains why photojournalism was long built on black and white photography, which was more easily managed, better conserved and consequently used more often. Despite being a high-quality photographic medium, the color slide had many disadvantages in terms of handling, and this influenced the visual memory of photojournalism in this period.

MP : You specifically explore the events of May 1968 in the press. What color was May? Red?

AL : Given that the use of color in agencies and the press at the time is little known and rarely talked about, the black and white and red media coverage that is now associated with May 1968 is supported by the idea of a black and white photographic archive of the events. Yet, like most of the events of that time, May ’68 was photographed both in black and white and color, and the weekly Paris Match published numerous color photographs in its May and June 1968 issues4. However, one widely circulated issue was published on June 15, a month after the unrest set off by the strikes, with an unusual black and white and red layout. An analysis of publications and agency collections shows that this issue of Paris Match, no. 998, served as a precedent for a cultural construction5 after the events, whereby this visual treatment of May 1968 gradually became the norm for the event’s 10-year anniversaries.

MP : The Caron Foundation collections show that Gilles Caron took very few color photographs of May 1968. Was this the case of other reporters at that time?

AL : The answer is shaped by the constraints of color slides. Above all, few color photographs of an event means few slides found and consultable, since a certain amount of color material is doubtless missing or unknown. According to Marianne Caron, Gilles Caron and Henri Bureau pooled their work, with Bureau shooting in color (consultable in the Sygma/Corbis archives) and Caron in black and white. But there are also some slides in the archive of the Foundation Caron. Without other archives – personal notes by the photographer or indications by the Gamma agency, for example – it is difficult to answer this question with certainty.

  1. Example of photographs edited by Bruno Barbey: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24PVHK9ODK4XQ&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=643#/SearchResult&VBID=24PVHK9ODK4XQ&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=643&PN=4, consulted on February 13, 2015 []
  2. Magnum Contact Sheets, New York, ICP, 2011. []
  3. Clément Chéroux, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 2013. Cynthia Young, Capa in Color, New York, ICP/DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2014 []
  4. Paris Match n°997, 999 and 1000. []
  5. Lawrence W. Lewine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Harvard University Press, 1990 (1988) [Culture d’en haut, culture d’en bas. L’émergence de la hiérarchie culturelle aux États-Unis, Paris, La Découverte/supporting texts, 2010]. []

Laisser un commentaire